- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2002

It is a 221-mile trip from Oxford, Miss., to Little Rock, Ark. Only time will tell, however, if that proves to be too far to travel for the Oxford American, the very flower of Southern literary-hood.

To survive, the polished but penniless magazine is trading Mississippi for Arkansas in a few weeks, joining At Home Media in Little Rock, which publishes a sleek decorating magazine. It's that or cease publication altogether.

Editorial content won't change, says spokesman Russ McDonough.

Five-and-dimes, kudzu, Aunt Pittypat's porch rambunctious forays into all things southrun will stay, subject to the editorial sensibilities of Marc Smirnoff, who founded the magazine in 1992 as a forum for Ray Blount Jr. and Donna Tartt, not to mention a few lost works from Walker Percy and William Faulkner.

The name remains; there will be no "Little Rock American."

Meanwhile, mega-author and financial benefactor John Grisham, who kept the 34,000-circulation magazine afloat for eight years, will become a "partial owner." Last year Mr. Grisham, author of "The Firm" and other legal dramas, made it clear the Oxford American must break even or fold no easy task for a regional, intellectual publication.

Luckily, Mr. Smirnoff received a last-minute reprieve from the Little Rock publisher, who promised a sound business strategy and double the circulation. But Oxford is not Little Rock: Mr. Smirnoff may be in for some cultural adjustments.

"It's a good move, but I am actually a little stunned this has happened," said Philip Martin, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist and author of the "The Artificial Southerner," published last year.

"I've always maintained that Arkansas is not really deep South, like Mississippi, Georgia or Alabama. We're a hardscrabble kind of state, and the 'OA' has never really included Arkansas in its pages," Mr. Martin said. "Now I can't help but think it may take on a little Arkansas flavor."

Little Rock, Mr. Martin said, "is a cosmopolitan city surrounded by Arkansas. Lots of lively arts and such. It's got much more going on than, say, Memphis."

There's always the Bill Clinton connection, which could easily fill several issues.

"Arkansas has its own ideas," Mr. Martin said. "There's a story among our schoolchildren that if we put up a wall around the state, we could survive all on our own. We can be a little insular."

Others concur that Arkansas may prove to be more than a new address.

"We'll have some impact. Little Rock itself will have some impact. We are a city of readers," said Ellis Widner, the Democrat-Gazette's Style section editor.

With sluggish advertising and competition from daily publications, weekly and monthly magazines have indeed suffered. Talk, Mademoiselle and George are among those to go under in the past year.

Nevertheless, plucky plans are afoot.

A search for a new staff is under way, including a publisher-business manager for the Oxford American, described in one recruitment ad as a "magazine with potential deep potential." The sixth annual Southern Music issue and accompanying CD is scheduled for this fall, followed by six issues in 2003 and a dozen by 2004.

Determined OA fans may rally.

"Sorry, but you may NOT go out of business. You are too good in this age of celebrity worship, where they tell how they wash their hands but not anything about their art," wrote one reader at the magazine's online forum.


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